My Disillusionment in Russia
IN A country where speech and press are so completely suppressed as in Russia it is not surprising that the human mind should feed on fancy and out of it weave the most incredible stories. Already, during my first months in Petrograd, I was amazed at the wild rumours that circulated in the city and were believed even by intelligent people. The Soviet press was inaccessible to the population at large and there was no other news medium. Every morning Bolshevik bulletins and papers were pasted on the street corners, but in the bitter cold few people cared to pause to read them. Besides, there was little faith in the Communist press. Petrograd was therefore completely cut off, not only from the Western world but even from the rest of Russia. An old revolutionist once said to me: "We not only don't know what is going on in the world or in Moscow; we are not even aware of what is happening in the next street." However, the human mind will not be bottled up all the time. It must have and generally finds an outlet. Rumours of attempted raids on Petrograd, stories that Zinoviev had been ducked in "Sovietsky soup" by some factory workers and that Moscow was captured by the Whites were afloat.
Of Odessa it was related that enemy ships had been sighted off the coast, and there was much talk of an impending attack. Yet when we arrived we found the city quiet and leading its ordinary life. Except for the large markets, Odessa impressed me as a complete picture of Soviet rule. But we had not been gone a day from the city when, on our return to Moscow, we again met the same rumours. The success of the Polish forces and the hasty retreat of the Red Army furnished fuel to the over-excited imagination of the people. Everywhere the roads were blocked with military trains and the stations filled with soldiers spreading the panic of the rout.
At several points the Soviet authorities were getting ready to evacuate at the first approach of danger. The population, however, could not do that. At the railroad stations along the route groups of people stood about discussing the impending attack. Fighting in Rostov, other cities already in the hands of Wrangel, bandits holding up trains and blowing up bridges, and similar stories kept everybody in a panic. It was of course impossible to verify the rumours. But we were informed that we could not continue to Rostov-on-the-Don, that city being already within the military zone. We were advised to start for Kiev and thence return to Moscow. It was hard to give up our plan of reaching Baku, but we had no choice. We could not venture too far, especially as our car permit was to expire within a short time. We decided to return to Moscow via Kiev.
When we left Petrograd, we had promised to bring back from the South some sugar, white flour, and cereals for our starved friends who had lacked these necessities for three years. On the way to Kiev and Odessa we found provisions comparatively cheap; but now the prices had risen several hundred per cent. From an Odessa friend we learned of a place twenty versts [about thirteen miles] from Rakhno, a small village near Zhmerenka, where sugar, honey, and apple jelly could be had at small cost. We were not supposed to transport provisions to Petrograd, though our car was immune from the usual inspection by the Tcheka. But as we had no intention of selling anything, we felt justified in bringing some food for people who had been starving for years. We had our car detached at Zhmerenka, and two men of the expedition and myself went to Rakhno.
It was no easy matter to induce the Zhmerenka peasants to take us to the next village. Would we give them salt, nails, or some other merchandise? Otherwise they would not go. We lost the best part of a day in a vain search, but at last we found a man who consented to drive us to the place in return for Kerensky rubles. The journey reminded me of the rocky road of good intentions: we were heaved up and down, jerked back and forth, like so many dice. After a seemingly endless trip, aching in every limb, we reached the village. It was poor and squalid, Jews constituting the main population. The peasants lived along the Rakhno road and visited the place only on market days. The Soviet officials were Gentiles.
We carried a letter of introduction to a woman physician, the sister of our Odessa Bundist friend. She was to direct us how to go about procuring the provisions. Arriving at the Doctor's house we found her living in two small rooms, ill kept and unclean, with a dirty baby crawling about. The woman was busy making apple jelly. She was of the type of disillusioned intellectual now so frequently met in Russia. From her conversation I learned that she and her husband, also a physician, had been detailed to that desolate spot. They were completely isolated from all intellectual life, having neither papers, books, nor associates. Her husband would begin his rounds early in the morning and return late at night, while she had to attend to her baby and household, besides taking care of her own patients. She had only recently recovered from typhus and it was hard for her to chop wood, carry water, wash and cook and look after her sick. But what made their life unbearable was the general antagonism to the intelligentsia. They had it constantly thrown up to them that they were bourgeois and counter-revolutionists, and they were charged with sabotage. It was only for the sake of her child that she continued the sordid life, the woman said; "otherwise it were better to be dead."
A young woman, poorly clad, but clean and neat, came to the house and was introduced as a school teacher. She at once got into conversation with me. She was a Communist, she announced, who was "doing her own thinking." "Moscow may be autocratic," she said, "but the authorities in the towns and villages here beat Moscow. They do as they please." The provincial officials were flotsam washed ashore by the great storm. They had no revolutionary past-they had known no suffering for their ideals. They were just slaves in positions of power. If she had not been a Communist herself, she would have been eliminated long ago, but she was determined to make a fight against the abuses in her district. As to the schools, they were doing as best they could under the circumstances, but that was very little. They lacked everything. It was not so bad in the summer, but in the winter the children had to stay home because the class rooms were not heated. Was it true that Moscow was publishing glowing accounts of the great reduction in illiteracy? Well, it was certainly exaggerated. In her village the progress was very slow. She had often wondered whether there was really much to so-called education. Supposing the peasants should learn to read and write. Would that make them better and kinder men? If so, why is there so much cruelty, injustice, and strife in countries where people are not illiterate? The Russian peasant cannot read or write, but he has an innate sense of right and beauty. He can do wonderful things with his hands and he is no more brutal than the rest of the world.
I was interested to find such an unusual viewpoint in one so young and in such an out-of-the-way place. The little teacher could not have been more than twenty-five. I encouraged her to speak of her reactions to the general policies and methods of her party. Did she approve of them, did she think them dictated by the revolutionary process? She was not a politician, she said; she did not know. She could judge only by the results and they were far from satisfactory. But she had faith in the Revolution. It had uprooted the very soil, it had given life a new meaning. Even the peasants were not the same-no one was the same. Something great must come of all the confusion.
The arrival of the Doctor turned the conversation into other channels. When informed of our errand he went in search of some tradesmen, but presently he returned to say that nothing could be done: it was the eve of Yom Kippur, and every Jew was in the synagogue. Heathen that I am, I did not know that I had come on the eve of that most solemn fast day. As wecould not remain another day, we decided to return without having accomplished our purpose.
Here a new difficulty arose. Our driver would not budge unless we got an armed guard to accompany us. He was afraid of bandits: two nights previously, he said, they had attacked travellers in the forest. It became necessary to apply to the Chairman of the Militia. The latter was willing to help us, but-all his men were in the synagogue, praying. Would we wait until the services were over?
At last the people filed out from the synagogue and we were given two armed militiamen. It was rather hard on those Jewish boys, for it was a sin to ride on Yom Kippur. But no inducement could persuade the peasant to venture through the woods without military protection. Life is indeed a crazy quilt made of patches. The peasant, a true Ukrainian, would not have hesitated a moment to beat and rob Jews in a pogrom; yet he felt secure in the protection of Jews against the possible attack of his own coreligionists.
We rode into the bright fall night, the sky dotted with stars. It was soothingly still, with all nature asleep. The driver and our escort discussed the bandits, competing in bloodcurdling stories of the outrages committed by them. As we reached the dark forest I reflected that their loud voices would be the signal of our approach for any highwaymen who might be lying in wait. The soldiers stood up in the wagon, their rifles ready for action; the peasant crossed himself and lashed the horses into a mad gallop, keeping up the pace till we reached the open road again. It was all very exciting but we met no bandits. They must have been sabotaging that night.
We reached the station too late to make connections and had to wait until the morning. I spent the night in the company of a girl in soldier uniform, a Communist. She had been at every front, she declared, and had fought many bandits. She was a sort of Playboy of the Eastern World, romancing by the hour. Her favourite stories were of shooting. "A bunch of counterrevolutionists, White Guards and speculators," she would say; "they should all be shot." I thought of the little school teacher, the lovely spirit in the village, giving of herself in hard and painful service to the children, to beauty in life; and here, her comrade, also a young woman, but hardened and cruel, lacking all sense of revolutionary values-both children of the same school, yet so unlike each other.
In the morning we rejoined the Expedition in Zhmerenka and proceeded to Kiev, where we arrived by the end of September, to find the city completely changed. The panic of the Twelfth Army was in the air; the enemy was supposed to be only 150 versts [about ninety-nine miles] away and many Soviet Departments were being evacuated, adding to the general uneasiness and fright. I visited Wetoshkin, the Chairman of the Revkom, and his secretary. The latter inquired about Odessa, anxious to know how they were doing there, whether they had suppressed trade, and how the Soviet Departments were working. I told him of the general sabotage, of the speculation and the horrors of the Tcheka. As to trade, the stores were closed and all signs were down, but the markets were doing big business. "Indeed? Well, you must tell this to Comrade Wetoshkin," the Secretary cried gleefully. "What do you suppose-Rakovsky was here and told us perfect wonders about the accomplishments of Odessa. He put us on the rack because we had not done as much. You must tell Wetoshkin all about Odessa; he will enjoy the joke on Rakovsky."
I met Wetoshkin on the stairs as I was leaving the office. He looked thinner than when I had last seen him, and very worried. When asked about the impending danger, he made light of it. "We are not going to evacuate," he said, "we remain right here. It is the only way to reassure the public."' He, too, inquired about Odessa. I promised to call again later, as I had no time just then, but I did not have the chance to see Wetoshkin again to furnish that joke on Rakovsky. We left Kiev within two days.
At Bryansk, an industrial centre not far away from Moscow, we came upon large posters announcing that Makhno was again with the Bolsheviki, and that he was distinguishing himself by daring exploits against Wrangel. It was startling news, in view of the fact that the Soviet papers had constantly painted Makhno as a bandit, counter- revolutionary, and traitor. What had happened to bring about this change of attitude and tone? The thrilling adventure of having our car held up and ourselves carried off as prisoners, by the Makhnovtsi did not come off. By the time we reached the district where Makhno had been operating in September, he was cut off from us. It would have been very interesting to meet the peasant leader face to face and hear at first hand what he was about. He was undoubtedly the most picturesque and vital figure brought to the fore by the Revolution in the South-and now he was again with the Bolsheviki. What had happened? There was no way of knowing until we should reach Moscow.
From a copy of the Izvestia that fell into our hands en route, we learned the sad news of the death of John Reed. It was a great blow to those of us who had known Jack. The last time I saw him was at the guest house, the Hotel International, in Petrograd. He had just returned from Finland, after his imprisonment there, and was ill in bed. I was informed that Jack was alone and without proper care, and I went up to nurse him. He was in a bad state, all swollen and with a nasty rash on his arms, the result of malnutrition. In Finland he had been fed almost exclusively on dried fish and had been otherwise wretchedly treated. He was a very sick man, but his spirit remained the same. No matter how radically one disagreed with Jack, one could not help loving his big, generous spirit, and now he was dead, his life laid down in the service of the Revolution, as he believed.
Arriving in Moscow I immediately went to the guest house, the Delovoi Dvor, where stayed Louise Bryant, Jack's wife. I found her terribly distraught and glad to see one who had known Jack so well. We talked of him, of his illness, his suffering and his untimely death. She was much embittered because, she claimed, Jack had been ordered to Baku to attend the Congress of the Eastern peoples when he was already very ill. He returned a dying man. But even then he could have been saved had he been given competent medical attention. He lay in his room for a week without the doctors making up their mind as to the nature of his illness. Then it was too late. I could well understand Louise's feelings, though I was convinced that everything humanly possible had been done for Reed. I knew that whatever else might be said against the Bolsheviki, it could not be charged that they neglect those who serve them. On the contrary, they are generous masters. But Louise had lost what was most precious to her.
During the conversation she asked me about my experiences and I told her of the conflict within me, of the desperate effort I had been making to find my way out of the chaos, and that now the fog was lifting, and I was beginning to differentiate between the Bolsheviki and the Revolution. Ever since I had come to Russia I had begun to sense that all was not well with the Bolshevik régime, and I felt as if caught in a trap. "How uncanny!" Louise suddenly gripped my arm and stared at me with wild eyes. "'Caught in a trap' were the very words Jack repeated in his delirium." I realized that poor Jack had also begun to see beneath the surface. His was the free, unfettered spirit striving for the real values of life. It would be chafed when bound by a dogma which proclaimed itself immutable. Had Jack lived he would no doubt have clung valiantly to the thing which had caught him in the trap. But in the face of death the mind of man sometimes becomes luminous: it sees in a flash what in man's normal condition is obscure and hidden from him. It was not at all strange to me that Jack should have felt as I did, as everyone who is not a zealot must feel in Russia--caught in a trap.
Chapter 24: Back in Petrograd